Mali: the music cries out

Mali: the music cries out

Oumou Sangare

Oumou Sangare

I’ve had it mind on several occasions in the past 12 months to write something about my love for the music of Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries that for two decades had been held up as a model of democratic progress in sub-Saharan Africa until last January when an armed insurgency resulted in Islamist forces gaining control of vast swathes of the north of the country, including the ancient cultural centre of Timbuktu.  Earlier this week, before the French military intervention, Mali appeared to be on the brink of dissolution as Islamist forces pushed south towards the capital Bamako.

This morning, The Guardian has an article by Robin Denselow (Mali music ban by Islamists ‘crushing culture to impose rule’) that will have been read with interest – and dread – by anyone who has been energised and enthralled by the astonishing cavalcade of wonderful musicians who have emerged from this land. Denselow begins by observing:

Nowhere does music have a greater social and political importance than in the vast desert state of Mali. It is shocking, therefore, that it has been banned across much of the two-thirds of Mali currently controlled by Islamic rebel groups.

He goes on to summarize the global impact of Mali’s musicians:

Malian musicians have become household names in the west. The list is remarkable, from the late Ali Farka Touré to the soulful Salif Keita, from Toumani Diabaté, the world’s finest exponent of the kora, to the bravely experimental Rokia Traoré. Then there’s the rousing desert blues of Tinariwen, who have performed alongside the Rolling Stones.

There is the passionate social commentary of Oumou Sangaré, and the rousing, commercially successful African pop fusion of Amadou & Mariam.

These musicians, with varied, distinctive styles, have educated western audiences about Africa and their country’s ancient civilisation, and the way in which traditional families of musicians, the griots, had acted as advisers to the rulers and guardians of the country’s history, and kept alive an oral tradition for generation after generation.

And yet, Denselow writes, ‘the Islamic rebel groups are trying to wipe out this ancient culture’ – and in the process have forced Malian musicians to examine the role they should now play.  He quotes Manny Ansar, director of Mali’s celebrated Festival in the Desert, at a recent censorship conference in Oslo as stating that the Islamic militias are banning music in order ‘to impose their authority, so there’s nothing to threaten them’. ‘They are attacking the traditional chiefs and musicians. And they’re using concepts of Islam that are 14 centuries old.’  Young people have been stopped from listening to music and families have had their televisions smashed for watching music shows, but music was still being played underground, Ansar said.

Denselow reports that Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara has just finished a new song and video, Peace, which will be released in Bamako on Thursday. The aim was to promote peace and ‘show that … we want one Mali’.  Outside Mali, other musicians are involved in an international campaign to promote the culture of their battered country. Rokia Traoré, arguably the most adventurous female singer in Africa, is currently on tour in Australia. She explains: “I can just keep going and doing the best in my work, to try to make people think good things about Mali and see good things from Mali.”

So, here are some good things from Mali, beginning with a track from one of the first Malian albums I bought, Salif Keita’s Soro from 1987, and followed by a song from the golden era of the state-subsidised bands of the 1970s, ‘Mandjou’ by by Les Ambassadeurs, also featuring a young Salif Keita:

Last, one of my favourite pieces of music of any description: ‘Djorolen’ sung by Oumou Sangare.  Sangare is the voice of feminism in West Africa. In a region where polygamy is the norm, and women are often viewed as the property of their husbands, Sangare’s music has come to symbolize the struggle against gender imbalance. In addition to their social content, Sangare’s songs are full of the joy and spirit that the traditional rhythms of Mali have been communicating for generations. The lyrics translate in part:

The worried songbird,
Cries out in the forest,
The worried songbird,
Her thoughts go far away,
The worried songbird,
cries out in the forest,
The worried songbird,
Her thoughts go far away,
For those of us who have no father,
Her thoughts go out to them.

See also

Oumou Sangere: On the Waterfront

Oumou Sangere: On the Waterfront

Oumou Sangare

Saw Oumou Sangare put on an electrifying show at On the Waterfront last night – a short series of free concerts in the spectacular setting of the Pier Head plaza. In the one-hour set, Sangare performed songs from her recent album, Seya (Joy) with a stripped-down band consisting of drums,  djembe, kora, flute, ngoni, electric bass, and two young female backing vocalists who dance and twirl calabashes, one of whom Oumou introduced as her daughter.

On an evening when the rain of recent days thankfully held off, but with a chilly breeze whipping in off the river,  the band drove the beat forward from the first number, Oumou’s voice soaring over the interweaving pulses and beats. One of the features of the set was how Oumou engaged directly with the audience, using French and her ‘not so good’ English to explain the lyrics of her songs. She is a champion of women’s rights, and she was at pains to get across how her songs express the problems that women face on a daily basis because of polygamy and arranged marriage in Mali, but also  the importance of love, the pain of exile, and the frailty of human life.

Oumou Sangare 3

The whole performance was relaxed and joyous, ending with an extended introduction, by Oumou, of each member of her band, bringing them to the front of the stage hand on their shoulder. Introducing the djembe player, she aked if anyone in the audience could play the hand drum; several hands went up and she invited one guy up on stage to briefly demonstrate his skill.

Oumou Sangare 2

Oumou’s songs are expressions of her own philosophy and wisdom, born from her experience growing up in a poor family in Bamako and being catapulted to stardom at only the age of 21. She has brought to the world the hauntingly beautiful music of her homeland: wassoulou.

Wassoulou music is based on the song and dance traditions of Wasulu, a remote and densely wooded region in southern Mali. In the 1950s, in the villages, the youth created this style out of the songs of the ancient hunters’ societies and made it their own. At first, the elders opposed it furiously, comparing the main instrument, the six-string harp, to a bed bug because of its nervous rhythms that made young people dance frenetically as if bitten. But by the late 1970s wassoulou had begun to emerge as a new popular style in Bamako among migrant communities from the region. It had strong, hypnotic dance rhythms and the lyrics talked about general aspects of life in contemporary Mali. But Sangare took all this much further with her debut album, Moussolou (Women).

Not only was there a new bold rhythm and musical colour but she also had a personal mission: to improve the subservient position of women in Mali.Her songs talked openly about subjects that had never before been expressed in public in a fundamentally conservative society, such as female sensuality, in her stunning hit song Diaraby Nene (The Shivers of Love).

This summer I’ve been listening to her great new album Seya (Joy).  This review from Pitchfork:

Sangaré gets a hand from a whopping 47 collaborators on the album, including master guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis, and Tony Allen. Most appear on a track or two, and mixed in with all the electric guitar, bass, flute, sax, and trap drums are a host of traditional Malian instruments, including the ngoni (a cousin of the guitar and banjo), the balafon (a type of marimba), and an arsenal of drums and percussion that give the album a diverse and always interesting rhythmic base. It opens with a blast of rhythmic balafon and dives into a fractured groove topped with an arcing flute, as Sangaré sings a forceful appeal for women’s equality in society and the home. Women’s rights are an issue she’s built her public life and much of her music around, and it’s a theme that crops up across the album.

“Wele Wele Wintou” sets dark female harmonies against a sharp sax theme behind Sangaré’s rapid-fire vocal, which speaks out against forced marriage. Subtle wah guitar burbles through the verses, and Tounkara takes one of the most unusual solos I’ve heard, playing far down the neck with a dark, blunt tone. You could probably listen to just the instrumental backing tracks to most of these songs and come away satisfied by the richness of the interlocking rhythms and the subtle harmonic shifts. Even slow tracks like “Senkele Te Sira”, which features another brilliant guitar part from Tounkara, have a dynamic, vibrant character that perfectly matches Sangaré’s sometimes towering vocals. She knows how to accent a phrase, unleashing a powerful wail at key moments to drive home a thought in a way that makes her passion clear in any language.

And this from the BBC:

Seya traverses a wide range of moods, from confident and celebratory to more austere, stripped down meditations. And while few artists give as good a groove as Oumou, the latter are often the best settings to appreciate her extraordinary voice; if Aretha Franklin had grown up in Bamako, she might have sounded something like this.

Apart from the declamatory Donso – an adaptation of a traditional Wassoulou hunter’s song – the material is all original as usual, and the basis of her distinctive sound remains the twitching, funky sound of the kamel n’goni(‘youth harp’), mostly played by ‘Benogo’ Brehima Diakité. But with fifty musicians taking part, there’s more variety of sounds and textures than ever. She’s used electric guitar before, but never with the kind of squealing rock treatments heard on Senkele Te Sira and Kounadya, which also features a great retro Hammond organ solo by co-producer Cheick TidianeSeck. There’s brass and the occasional deft use of strings, as well as guests such as flautist ‘Magic’ Malik Mazzadri and drummer Tony Allen, but none are allowed to overshadow the star.

Though it’s difficult to pick highlights from such a consistent album, the driving opener Sounsoumba and the radiantly joyful title track, with its lovely swooping chorus vocals, are the most instantly appealing of the more upbeat pieces.

Oumou Sangaré – Seya

Oumou Sangare ‘Sounsoumba’

Special acoustic version of the ‘Seya’ album opener filmed at World Circuit’s Livingston Studios, featuring Benego Diakite on kamelngoni.